Looking for Home Around the World: The Uyghur Diaspora and Its Needs

Members of the Uyghur ethnic group have long faced repression from Chinese authorities. As Beijing places more pressure on Uyghurs by abusing them at home and intimidating them abroad, host countries can step up to protect them.

In December 2021, US President Joe Biden delivers remarks before signing legislation targeting companies that benefit from forced labor within the Xinjiang region of China. Photo: Flickr/White House.

In December 2021, US President Joe Biden delivers remarks before signing legislation targeting companies that benefit from forced labor within the Xinjiang region of China. Photo: Flickr/White House.


In 2016, news of horrific human rights abuses began trickling out of China’s Xinjiang region, home to Uyghurs and other ethnic Turkic groups. Beijing sought to stamp out their targets’ distinct identity and eliminate loyalty to institutions other than the party-state, which is dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. To do this, Beijing has used a variety of destructive measures including mass surveillance, forced labor, detention in a system of concentration camps, family separation, and forced sterilization. This strategy is underpinned by a racist assumption: Uyghurs are inherently “suspicious” and prone to criminal activity simply by virtue of their ethnicity and religion, with most Uyghurs adhering to Sunni Islam.

Experts and observers have come to view these actions as fundamental atrocity crimes. While Uyghurs in Xinjiang have borne the brunt of this repression, a global diaspora has also been affected. Some of its members have been rendered stateless, rely on aid, and otherwise live in fear of what Chinese authorities can do beyond their borders. But governments, civil society, and international bodies can help diaspora Uyghurs live freer and safer lives.

Waves of repression, waves of departure

The global diaspora of over 500,000 Uyghurs stretches across at least 38 countries. The largest and oldest communities reside in countries that are geographically and culturally close to their historic home. Kazakhstan is home to 297,000 Uyghurs, while Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan each host 50,000 members and Turkey has at least that many. Communities further away are much smaller: 15,000 people live in 18 European countries, 10,000 live in the United States, 2,500 live in Canada, and at least 3,000 live in Australia.

Uyghur migration came in three waves, the first of which occurred in the late 19th century. The second began in 1949—the year Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the new regime imposed restrictions on Uyghur cultural practices—and continued through the late 1960s as the Cultural Revolution accelerated. The most recent wave began in the 1990s and continued through late 2016, when authorities began confiscating Uyghurs’ passports and committing atrocities.

The behavior of Chinese rulers has long motivated this movement, and that trend has continued under the party-state. Uyghurs, who see themselves as the rightful owners of their land, have resisted full integration into the PRC while Beijing has worked to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs and assert full control over their territory. With little hope of living freely in their homeland, Uyghurs lucky enough to receive passports chose to leave.

A diverse diaspora, still unsafe in new lands

While this experience unites the diaspora, its members are far from monolithic. Not all members practice Islam. There is disagreement on whether and how to advocate for an independent homeland of East Turkistan. Diaspora Uyghurs include wealthy professionals, blue-collar workers, informal workers, and refugees.

Diaspora members have equally diverse needs, desires, and difficulties. Those who are not fluent in the languages spoken in their new homes have trouble finding work. Diaspora parents fear for the survival of the Uyghur language and culture as their children integrate into host societies.

On top of all this, Uyghurs fear for their own safety in new lands. Uyghurs may feel exposed when their host countries strengthen relations with China; consider how authorities in Turkey, which has sought closer ties with Beijing, arrested Uyghurs over protests in 2021 and threatened them with deportation. Some Uyghurs, who are afraid of informants or for the safety of relatives living in Xinjiang, live in mistrust and isolation. Uyghurs are also at risk when authorities fulfill Chinese deportation requests, which has occurred in several countries.

Many of those who have emigrated more recently are stateless because they could not renew their Chinese-issued passports. They struggle to access basic care or resources and arguably have the most to fear from transnational repression. And those who have experienced firsthand or secondary trauma from abuses committed in Xinjiang struggle with mental health. Local Uyghur-run organizations often lack the expertise to address these problems, which are also harder to acknowledge because they are considered taboo.

What can be done

Political leaders can do more to help this resilient diaspora. The United States, United Kingdom, and Canada have already taken meaningful action to address global Uyghur issues through legislation (US president Joe Biden, for example, signed a law targeting companies that benefit from forced labor within Xinjiang in 2021). Several countries have funded Uyghur-run advocacy organizations working to affect change in the Uyghur homeland from abroad. Concerned capitals should continue that support, even though they cannot unilaterally counter the abuses Uyghurs in Xinjiang face.

Governments and civil society can provide direct financial support to diaspora Uyghurs who face pressing legal, economic, cultural, and health needs. Some host countries could also welcome more Uyghurs in the first place; asylum seekers looking for refuge in the United States have faced a years-long backlog. Through diplomatic channels and advocacy, international bodies and civil society can pressure Beijing to stop its policy of repression and encourage host countries to respect Uyghur residents.

Beijing systematically employs torture against members of “illegal” religious groups, political opponents, and criminal suspects. Governments should exercise extreme caution when considering deportation requests originating from Beijing, complying only if certain that individuals are not being politically targeted and will not face torture. Interpol, for its part, should refrain from disseminating notices initiated by Beijing.

Even as the Chinese party-state tears at the fabric of Uyghur society in Xinjiang, the international community can help diaspora Uyghurs enjoy more resilient and sustainable lives.